Mixed Signals

3 photos: farmer in flooded field; farmer on sun-baked ground; smiling farmer before green field

Left to right: @ Panos/A. McConnell; Panos/M. Ostergaard; Panos/N. Quarmyne

How do you prepare for climate change when forecasts point in different directions?

African farmers, get ready. Your climate is going to get wetter. Or maybe drier. Or a lot hotter. Or not.

Three recent IFPRI books on climate change in East Africa, West Africa, and Southern Africa, which present scenarios of climate change and implications for agriculture and food security, illustrate the wide scope of climate projections. One model predicts an increase of more than 100 millimeters of rain a year for most of East and Central Africa. Another model projects that rainfall will decline significantly in some countries but change little in most areas. With this kind of variation in projections, how can agriculture ministries, development agencies, and farmers prepare?

Possible Futures

Climate change will open the door to both climate hotspots, where productivity declines are projected to be significant, and climate opportunities, where yields could rise or new crops could grow.
The risk of counting on one particular forecast can be high for a farmer or an agricultural system, says IFPRI Research Fellow Timothy Thomas, who coauthored the book series. If you invest in the certainty that your climate is going to get drier and then it doesn’t, you’ve wasted your resources. And the best scientists in the world can’t agree on what’s going to happen in a lot of places.
“The trick,” says Thomas, “will be to find ways of adapting to many possible future climates, not to tailor expectations to one future in particular.”

This flexible approach will depend partly on research. If researchers develop crop varieties to address the different scenarios farmers might face, such as heat stress, drought, or soil salinity, farmers can choose the variety that best matches actual conditions as they change. Governments need to strengthen their research sectors now, says Thomas, since developing suitable crop varieties can take many years. They should also try to achieve economies of scale by working with regional organizations because ecological zones can span more than one country.

Good for Agriculture

Thomas points out that climate models don’t always disagree, and where three or four of the four main models predict a drier or wetter climate, that outcome is more likely to unfold.

And, he says, given that crop yields in Africa are so low, many steps can be taken now to raise productivity. These are likely to also be good for a future with climate change. For example, improving roads and transport would help connect farmers with markets so they can buy inputs like fertilizer and sell their outputs. Irrigation or water harvesting could be undertaken where possible. Investments in research would help develop more robust crop varieties that are quicker to mature and more drought-tolerant, and extension systems can teach farmers how to use the new crop varieties and other new technologies.
“Good policy for climate change,” says Thomas, “is almost always good policy for agriculture in general.”

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